Innovation

Tesla gives its 'fully self-driving capable' vehicles major software upgrade

The v8.1 update on 'second generation' Teslas brings major improvements to Autopilot. Here's why it's an important step towards delivering fully autonomous vehicles.


Tesla just released its v8.1 software update, marking a significant move towards releasing its "fully self-driving capable" vehicles.

The v8.1 update applies to all HW2, or "second generation" vehicles produced by Tesla, which includes anything made after October 18, 2016. According to Tesla CEO Elon Musk, these HW2 vehicles are built with the hardware to make them—once the technology is available— capable of full autonomy.

In the latest upgrade, Tesla has improved Autopilot, increased Model X Falcon-Wing door control, and introduced voice controls. Autopilot 2.0 Autosteer is also improved.

The HW2 cars, which include "Enhanced Autopilot," are equipped with eight surround cameras, 12 updated ultrasonic sensors, and forward-facing radar with enhanced processing. The onboard computers in HW2 vehicles are equipped with 40 times the processing power of the first Autopilot version. And while the original vision system was developed by Mobileye, the latest tech was created by Tesla. The cameras, sensors, radar, and computer system are meant to enable these cars to eventually become fully self-driving. It is also important to note that Tesla drivers will choose whether to use the fully-autonomous mode or Autopilot mode, and can disengage in either situation.

Tesla has stated that using "fully self-driving capable" mode still depends on software validation and regulatory approval. It has restricted the use of these vehicles "for revenue purposes," effectively blocking customers from using them for business purposes.

Teslarati has reported that Tesla's v8.1 is still not quite achieved the same level as the company's first generation Autopilot.

And while many experts see Tesla's HW2 vehicles as an important move toward releasing self-driving technology, many are skeptical that these vehicles are close to true, level 4 autonomy, in which the car can operate under any conditions, without the help of a human driver.

Still, the improvements mark an important point in Tesla's timeline. In January 2017, Musk tweeted that HW2 Teslas could have "fully self-driving capability" in three to six months. Musk also announced plans to test drive a fully-autonomous car from Los Angeles to New York in 2017.

SEE: Our autonomous future: How driverless cars will be the first robots we learn to trust

"Tesla again is leveraging its industry-leading over-the-air update capabilities to change the way it does everything," said Michael Ramsey, autonomous vehicle expert at Gartner Research. "If it is similar [to Mobileye's vision], it's amazing that they have been able to develop it so quickly."

The real key is whether Tesla will "continue making upgrades over time, passing this point and improving," said Ramsey, "right up until the existing sensors and computing hardware on the car are maxed out."

The 3 big takeaways for TechRepublic readers

  1. Second generation, or HW2 Teslas, which have "fully self-driving capability," have received a significant software upgrade.
  2. The v8.1 upgrade includes improved Autopilot, increased Model X Falcon-Wing door control, voice controls, and a beefed up Autopilot 2.0 Autosteer.
  3. Autonomous driving experts do not see the possibility of Tesla offering a fully-driverless, level 4 capability anytime soon. Still, if Tesla has been able to match Mobileye's vision system with their own in-house version in such a short time frame, it is an impressive feat.

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Image: Jasper Juinen, Bloomberg via Getty Images

About Hope Reese

Hope Reese is a Staff Writer for TechRepublic. She covers the intersection of technology and society, examining the people and ideas that transform how we live today.

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